In this week’s parasha, the Torah reminds us of the importance of the mitzvot. God, through Moses, instructs us saying, “Sh’marta ve asita otam” – “You shall keep them and do them.” Rabbi Yochanan, a rabbi of the Midrash, noticed the apparent redundancy – the Torah says “keep” and “do” them. If we need both words, there must be two actions being referred to. What’s the difference between “keep” and “do”?
Rabbi Yochanan realized that the Hebrew word “asita” not only means “you shall do,” it can also be translated as “you shall make.” Therefore, he interpreted the verse in a surprising and important way. The Torah is hinting that if we “keep” a mitzvah properly, this is tantamount to “making” it – actually creating that mitzvah, and the one who does this gets the credit as if he or she actually commanded it.
This is a strange midrash. Usually, people do mitzvot because they believe, and want to believe, that God commanded them. Why would Rabbi Yochanan interpret this verse to mean that doing a mitzvah is like creating it yourself?
The answer lies in his words, “doing a mitzvah properly.” Doing a mitzvah “properly” in this context means implementing it in a way that is fair and reasonable; as opposed to literal. One who does a mitzvah literally, does the mitzvah as created by God. But the one who does the mitzvah, taking into account justice and common sense, may end up doing the mitzvah very differently – and therefore it is possible to claim that this mitzvah, done properly by this person, was in a sense “created” by that person.
Elsewhere, Rabbi Yochanan goes even further and suggests that doing a mitzvah properly can even be a way of making oneself. That is, people can reinvent themselves through a commitment to doing the right thing – in a tough situation; you create what it really means to be you by getting it right. As a teacher of mine used to say, “God makes us ‘human,’ but we must add the ‘e.’ Only we can make ourselves ‘humane.’”
Rabbi Mitch Levine